Third Place in Fiction: "Meet Me Near the Sign for 2 For $3 Fish Filets"

City Paper

Let’s not smoke cigarettes tonight.

OK, she said.

We agreed that smoking had led to nothing but an unattractive cough. Plus she is an opera singer with a voice to maintain. And She is Christine, my girlfriend.

We both live in New York. But not together. But maybe one day.

Unconsciously we both picked up a pack-a-day habit that left us on edge, unsatisfied and itching for more. At the time, though, it seemed totally necessary as our only sense of release from the chaos brought on by city crazies gravitating towards us. In the three months we’d been dating, Christine and I acquired a collection of friends-turned-psychos. We had stories to swap on stoops. And cigarettes allowed us to talk, breathing air tainted by noxious nicotine and the smell of street dogs sizzling.

We both decided to quit smoking after separate vacations-gone-wrong in Spain and Germany. I remember deciding to stop as I drove in the shitty silver Volkswagen to the Hamburg airport one May morning. Looking out the window, I imagined the roads stretching and turning in a farewell landscape, reaching to wrap around my arm and keep me there forever. But I did not turn back to say goodbye. There were no “I love you’s” melting off my lips, whispers in the wind. I could not wait to leave this emptiness to go home.

Where was home? Home wasn’t in the city: I moved out of my NYU dorm back to Connecticut. Home wasn’t yet there at my parents’. Home wasn’t in Europe, in the houses of friends who’d become strangers during my awkward stay. But I think home was in her arms.

During our travels, I couldn’t be with Christine every day, but I could see her every night, in my dreams.

When I returned to New York we met outside the McDonald’s on Broadway near Astor. The one that always has “2 for $3 Fish Filet” signs in the windows.

When she held me so tight, all I could say was Baby. Again. And again. And again. And again.

I had started to forget just how big her smile is. It spans across her face so wide. It looks like the Mississippi River, and I wonder if one day she’ll laugh so hard that the corners of her lips will begin to run off her face like muddy water rushing to the Gulf. When I saw her again, I forgot how sometimes I hold my breath in sighing ahh-mazement when I look into her bright green eyes that make me imagine dancing Gypsies, twisting until the colors of their skirts blend into the sunset and nature. They have so much energy, you can’t look away.

Her eyes shine when the sun hits the lenses of her new glasses. Usually around 4 in the afternoon when the spring sky tries on an orange jumpsuit and everything seems just a little bit tinted. They – the glasses — are very chic and oversized and have rose-colored plastic frames. We picked them out together at a little East Village boutique. Christine had liked that pair I discovered amongst rows of eyeglasses aligned in shelves of wooden antique cabinets. I liked that she trusted my choice.

I trust her instincts when she critiques my writing and painting, telling me she loves them, showing me in the way she gestures with her hands to explain.

She’s an artist too – and actually out there doing it. She made her Lincoln Center opera debut and now she taught herself guitar, ukulele and banjo in a couple months and became a touring folk singer-songwriter.

Her songs make listeners feel so strong; they’re about moving on. But sometimes her sad lyrics give the audience a sense that the pieces of glass inside are cracking with every strum that hits with just the right edge. They know that soon the surface will simply shatter because you can’t just keep cracking a little bit forever. Sooner or later, the big crash comes. That’s how her music makes me feel

When I am bored and disappointed I think, there is nothing left exciting to do in this world except love. But then I wonder, isn’t that all there is to do in this world? And isn’t that fabulous? Sure, there is routine and responsibility, but each week I so perfectly fold my laundry on the ping-pong table in my basement, smoothing out wrinkles till it’s just right, because I love myself, really. I deserve the cleanest, neatest, best-smelling shirt in the whole damn world, and I’m going to give it to myself. So work is not so bad.

And we do all our errands and chores so that at the end of the day, we can reward ourselves with rest before tomorrow’s errands and chores. But being able to lay our two weary bodies next to each… other, each… night is the reason I go on through the day. And even as day after day after day passes, this habit will never grow old. It is human.

I used to think that I wanted something else. That I needed to try it all. So I slept with pretty people in pretty spaces, eating exotic food, tasting elite substances. And then I would decide I hated it. I would quit. I would say sorry. I would get lonely. I would try it  again.

But finally I found Christine, a reason to give up pathetic patterns for something real. Even if that something kind of scares you because, well, you just don’t know why.

We met one night at Cubbyhole, a lesbian bar my friend and I dubbed “Cuntyhole” based on previous adventures there. It’s one of those grungy Village establishments with a ceiling exploding with tacky disco balls, streamers, and what may be called Christmas ornaments. We’re not sure. That is the kind of bar Christine and I met at.

She was wearing a cotton T-shirt that said “Cape Cod” and flip-flops with jeans. And she spilled an entire Seabreeze before my feet. I told the bartender I had done it though. When I realized what I had just said, I looked in the mirror behind the bar and saw my reflection between bottles of vodka. I thought, This is not the chick I thought I was. I was instantly swooned.

Later we called it a night and hopped in separate cabs, hers to Brooklyn, mine to Chinatown. But minutes later, “Christine who works at SoHo House” was flashing on my phone screen, burning my intoxicated pupils.

Where are you? Get out of your cab and meet me. Just do it.

And just like that I, like a giddy girl, jumped out to go home with her. I think it may have even been a rainy night. What a Hollywoodized moment. But that night, somewhere in between spitting bullshit conversations, dealing with daily dramas, trying to be pretty and competing for attention, two people were able to find each other and talk about something else.

When I got to know Christine I realized she was what I wanted my life to look like.

I wanted to say come draw in Central Park with me, let me make you some tea, do you like to eat yogurt for breakfast too?, let’s carve our initials in a very ancient tree, or just a normal one if we cannot find that. I wanted to say all the things people do when they meet the right someone. And I did, not because it was what I should do, but because it was so natural that I could not not do that even if I tried.

Whenever I am coming to her apartment, I always say, I’ll be there in a little while. Then Christine says on cue, I never know how long ‘a while’ is with you!

One night I was lying on her stomach, like I used to do with my mom back when I was not too big to call her ‘Mommy.’ I was listening to her breathing, feeling my head rise up and down, up and down. And I said to her, Please stay. Please stay a while. Christine has stayed with me. And it’s OK that we will never be able to calculate exactly just how long ‘a while’ is.

Sometimes when she is cooking me my favorite grilled cheese, I like to watch her from behind. The way she balances to itch her leg with her foot, how she sings a little here and there, and how she asks me, You OK babe? whenever I get too quiet. It all makes me want to rush her from behind, grab her waist, put my cheek in her afro and lips to her ear, which makes me giggle because it is so typical Christine: a ton of piercings but not one earring. She’s got the guts to get the holes, but doesn’t care to wear the bling.

I want to feel small, nestling into her body even though she’s 10 inches shorter than me and I probably look silly doing it. And I want to whisper, You could not be more perfect even if you tried.

When I leave her place in the morning I feel sort of sad that the magic is over and I have to go back to facing life by myself again, even if it is for only a few hours before we’re together again.

One time though, I was riding the R downtown and this old man was begging for money with a felt hat. I felt bad for him because he had nothing to offer – he could not sing or break-dance or tell jokes for change. He was just homeless and needed help. He had no antics for me, but I gave him a dollar, though I had few to spare myself. He just looked at me, surprised, and said out of his yellowed teeth: Bless you and your family and your love.

Suddenly I felt not so lonely anymore and we just smiled before my subway stop came. I wanted to say, No, bless you for making me feel so lucky. But instead, I just thought about it for the next four to six hours. I should have said something. Or maybe it’s nicer that I didn’t need to. We see such sad things to make us see the other stuff with new perspective.

Once when we were in bed together, my ring accidentally scratched Christine. It was terrible, there was blood, and I felt so, so, so guilty. It sounds creepy, but maybe it was all right that it happened. Now, if she ever needs to find me, she just has to look for a thin white line on her thigh and there I’ll be, whenever she misses me.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how I will miss her when I go to Prague to study in the fall. Of course we talk and text all the time, so I am not so worried about staying in touch. But I am anxious about the moment when I wake up in the morning, drink a cappuccino with extra espresso, go to class, maybe go to therapy and talk about how my parents were never around, drink another cappuccino with extra espresso and go back to my apartment and watch a movie, snuggled up in a quilt, and turn to laugh with her, and understand that Christine is not actually here with me. Then I will know. I am alone.

But tonight I am with her and everything is going to be OK even though my family is driving me insane and her roommates are trying to get out of their lease and the recession is making our car companies bankrupt and the swine flu is spreading and we haven’t been hungry or sleeping for days and the world feels like it just might blow up.

It will go on.

It will be beautiful.

And we will not even need to smoke cigarettes.

Tonight.

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